As I revealed on Monday, Downing Street is currently engaged in a belated campaign to counter grassroots opposition to and alarm at the Chequers proposals.
ConservativeHome first raised the alarm that Party members were unhappy with the policy change on the Sunday after the Chequers summit, in our snap survey. As the resignations mounted, grassroots opposition seems to have grown, too.
Since my last summary of the state of play we have seen new evidence, including the results of Dorset Conservatives’ own survey of 600 Party members. Troublingly for the Government, that survey found not only that members oppose Chequers by 57 per cent to 24 per cent, but that the proposals have had knock-on effects a) on their faith in the Prime Minister – with 65 per cent saying they did not trust her to “deliver the best for the UK” – and b) on their Party loyalty – with 7.5 per cent of respondents answering “I’m going to resign imminently”, and further 19 per cent rating their mood only one stop above that level.
Unsurprisingly, the Government is now campaigning to try to win back the support of Party members. Gavin Barwell and Brandon Lewis hosted an exploratory conference call on Sunday night with Area and Regional officers of the Party. Yesterday the two men started the next phase of the charm offensive, delivering an in-person briefing at Number 10 to Association Chairmen in the afternoon, followed by a conference call in the evening at which Chairmen unable to make it to London were able to put questions to the Prime Minister.
I’ve spoken to Association Chairmen who were in attendance at Downing Street yesterday afternoon and who were on the conference call last night, so can relate their experience of how both events played out.
The Prime Minister’s conference call
The call, which took place immediately after the crunch votes on the Trade Bill, was co-hosted by the Party Chairman but the main attraction was Theresa May herself. Lewis did a short introduction, then May said a few words about the Government’s position, but the bulk of the hour was allocated to questions from members.
In a reminder that her office still carries some clout in itself, every participant ConservativeHome has spoken to reported that the questioners were extremely polite – “everyone was on their best behaviour”, one notes. Some even felt the questions were “softball”, including one asking (somewhat ironically) “How can we ensure the Parliamentary Party continues to work together?”
Others point to the format, in which the Prime Minister would hear a question and answer it but the questioner had no right of reply, as being less testing than they had hoped. This allowed her to produce “always a boilerplate answer” on the Government’s agenda without necessarily addressing specific concerns about the White Paper.
Nonetheless, most Association Chairmen appear to have broadly appreciated being given any opportunity to hear from their Party leader at all. Many of them have faced worried and sometimes angry questions from local members in the last week and a half, and the chance to communicate such problems to the Prime Minister is rare.
Questions ranged from frustration at the way the Government is communicating its plan, through to concerns that May might further retreat from her red lines. I’m told that on the latter point she seemed more keen to discuss the difference of opinion between member states and the Commission than to explicitly commit to give no more ground.
Summer charm offensive
Interestingly, the Prime Minister revealed that there are more stages yet to come in Downing Street’s push to secure greater support for the Chequers proposal.
She informed Association Chairmen that the Government will be issuing a “mythbuster” about the plan later this week in the hope of addressing some of the concerns about what it means in practice, and that she and other ministers will be going “out on tour” over the course of the summer to try to secure people’s backing.
The many Brexiteers who oppose Chequers will no doubt see this as a concerning sign that she is still committed to her policy change, even after all the resignations, disruption and criticism it has already brought. Lo and behold, it was announced this morning that she will be touring Northern Ireland at the end of the week, including a speech in Belfast in which she intends to present the White Paper as the solution to the border issue.
We don’t yet know how effective a tactic the call was, but it does offer us an insight into May’s strategy for Party management. The fact that those questioning her were somewhat deferential in their approach is good news for Downing Street, in the sense that it would be worse if they were shouting, but to some degree that might also be politeness and the authority of office masking the true scale of discontent.
The ‘tense’ Downing Street briefing
That possibility is certainly borne out by comparing reports of the Prime Minister’s call to eye-witness accounts of the in-person briefing held by Lewis and Barwell earlier in the day. I’m told the audience contained scores of Association Chairmen – that somewhere between 80 and 100 had traveled to a weekday meeting at short notice hints at the strength of feeling on the issue.
The mood appears to have been more fractious than that on the conference call. People in the room variously describe it as “very tense”, “emotional” and “highly charged”. There was, I’m told, “no shouting or hysterics”, but “a lot of people there were clearly upset”. My sources estimate the audience’s view on Chequers was broadly in the same region as that we found in the ConservativeHome survey – “60 to 70 per cent were unhappy”, “there was a lot of anger with very few supportive voices”, and “Mrs May didn’t have a lot of fans in there”, though “no-one was saying [May] had to go”.
Perhaps it was the face-to-face setting, or the absence of the Prime Minister, but questioners seem to have been more willing to be blunt, exacerbated by the fact they had the opportunity to debate back and forth with both men. As on Sunday’s call, Barwell handled most of the discussion of the detail of the plan (he “seemed on top of the brief”), while Lewis addressed questions on the Party itself.
Debate over Chequers and the White Paper itself followed lines that are by now familiar. As we saw with the Prime Minister’s Marr interview on Sunday, “There is a definite change of tone, from ‘nothing has changed from Mansion House’ to ‘here’s what’s changed and why’”.
“The [ERG] amendments went some way to appease people, but the common rulebook was the main bone of contention,” another source tells me. Barwell sought to address this by arguing that Parliament would gain the right to debate new EU laws, only to be asked what the point of such debate was if any Parliament which dared to reject one would be inviting the collapse of the trading arrangement.
Troublingly, when pressed on the widespread question of whether the Government would give further ground, I’m told the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff “conceded that further concessions were likely” on the grounds that “we’ve got to be pragmatic”. Indeed, some of those listening to him were alarmed to note that “they refrained from saying ‘red lines’…there seems to be a move away in terms of their vocabulary – probably because they’ve already crossed the red lines.”
When one Association Chairman reported voters’ frustration at claims that the Prime Minister had discussed her plan with Angela Merkel before her Cabinet, “that wasn’t denied” – Barwell emphasised instead the need to deal with other EU leaders throughout the process. The focus
Party discipline and morale made up much of the rest of the discussion. Several chairmen reported that their associations had lost members and even executive members who had quit the Party in protest – though others say they have not seen any resignations. Lewis replied that Party membership had gone up overall, but was predictably challenged with the argument that the arrival of new members joining in the hope of a leadership contest concealed the loss of experienced members within the statistics.
Newspaper reports that MPs such as Simon Clarke and Andrea Jenkyns had had their campaign funding threatened by either the Whips or the Party Chairman have evidently cut-through – I’m told there was “a lot of anger” on this topic in particular, unsurprisingly since it would suggest the Government is willing to harm local campaigns as a disciplinary sanction. Lewis, however, flatly denied such reports outright. That places him at odds with at least two sourced reports to the contrary, but calmed some of the emotion on the topic, at least for the moment.
Did the briefing event succeed?
Most of those I’ve spoken to are sceptical: “I didn’t get the impression that they were convincing anyone at all”; “those people who came into the meeting feeling negative left exactly as they came, if not angrier”; “…it might be too little too late”; “…this is a sellout – no matter how you try to sell it to us, we don’t see it that way, and our members don’t”; “If nothing else, Gavin and Brandon will be under no illusions at the the mess they and the PM are in.”
I did encounter one person who arrived as a sceptic of the plan, who still has “some reservations” but believes he “can sell it on the doorstep” “based on Barwell’s presentation” – there may of course be others of a similar mind whom ConservativeHome has not heard from.
The office of Prime Minister and the glitz of Downing Street have substantial pull, and it was clever to deploy them – even one very sceptical Chairman concedes that “most people were keen they’d been called in”. But it’s also evident that Downing Street is walking a fine line between being persuasive and overdoing the pressure.
Relations are rocky between the leadership and the voluntary party – “trust was mentioned several times” in the briefing, I’m told – and therefore anything that sounds like strong-arming is dangerous. Some of those in Barwell and Lewis’s audience felt that “There was…an emphasis that we had a responsibility to sell this policy”, even to the point that “collective responsibility was also mentioned, with the inference that that included us”. One source describes this approach as “pretty stupid and slightly bullying”, which is not the impression either man would hope to give.
As before, the persistent difficulty is that these audiences – variously concerned, frustrated, angry, or outright opposed – are far from the toughest crowd to whom the Government must sell its plan if the policy is to have any future. As one Association Chairman put it after yesterday’s briefing: “They kept going ‘this is a complex process’…their job is to simplify it – if you can’t simplify it to the faithful, you’re going to have a hell of a job” with voters. The Chequers plan has a mountain to climb if it is to secure anything like a viable level of support.